Yesterday, Beat, and other eating disorder and mental health charities across the UK, marked the start of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, an annual event that gives us a chance to highlight the struggles faced by those affected by these serious mental illnesses.
At least 725,000 people of all ages, genders and backgrounds in the UK have an eating disorder. They are extremely serious illnesses, and if left untreated for too long they potentially have long-term physical consequences and may even be deadly - anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Beat focuses on early intervention for eating disorders as a major part of its work, because we know that the sooner someone gets treatment, the better their chance of a full and sustained recovery.
Early intervention relies on a number of different factors. For someone with an eating disorder to access the treatment they need and deserve as quickly as possible, the people around them, such as their friends and family, must be able to spot the earliest symptoms. Their GP needs to know how to recognise an eating disorder when it first develops, so that they can immediately refer the patient for specialist assessment. And, of course, the funding needs to be in place to allow for the provision of effective treatment as soon as a diagnosis is made.
GPs are often the first port of call for people who are worried about themselves or someone they know, so for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Beat's focus is the vital role that GPs play in diagnosis and treatment. To identify an eating disorder as soon as it develops, GPs must know what to look for. This doesn't simply mean the changes to physical appearance that might be expected, but behavioural and psychological signs that in most cases will emerge much earlier. With a standard GP appointment lasting only ten minutes, we know it's not always going to be easy for the GP to pick up on these signs and to talk with the patient about what they might mean, especially if, as can be the case, the patient themselves is struggling to realise that they're ill. So more needs to be done to make sure that GPs can provide the best care possible to patients suffering from these complex illnesses.
Yesterday morning, Beat released the results of a survey we carried out in December 2016, which focused on the experiences of sufferers of eating disorders with their GPs. We got responses from almost 1,700 people who had either had an eating disorder, supported someone with an eating disorder, or both. Of over 1,200 who had sought treatment for their own eating disorders from their GP, 30% didn't get a referral to specialist mental health services from the first GP they visited, and only 34% felt their GP knew how to help them. The results, as well as comments from respondents on the survey and in follow-up conversations, show that we need to do more to help GPs help their patients. To approach the GP about an eating disorder requires enormous courage on the part of the sufferers, and we must ensure that all GPs have enough understanding of eating disorders to be able to provide them with the best quality care.
The consequences of not receiving treatment at once can be serious. Some survey respondents who had visited their GP for their eating disorder were told that they wouldn't be able to access treatment unless they had a lower Body Mass Index. As one person said, in response to being told her BMI wasn't low enough for treatment: "My already warped thoughts went wild. [My GP] was right - there was nothing to worry about; my family were overreacting, I didn't have a problem until I lost more weight." Being turned away from treatment can cause people to believe that they're not really ill, or that they're not worthy of getting help.
We know that sometimes access to treatment is out of the hands of GPs. We also know that while there are instances of people being turned away, there are also many instances of GPs who have provided fantastic care for patients with eating disorders. We have heard from people who completed our survey that even - and perhaps especially - in cases where specialist treatment has been difficult to access, a GP who understands these illnesses and is able to provide support can make a real difference to the wellbeing of their patient. Not only do GPs play an essential role in identifying these illnesses and referring their patients, but a knowledgeable and compassionate GP can make a big contribution to recovery by coordinating their care and monitoring their health.
To make sure that GPs are able to provide the best possible care for people with eating disorders, Beat are calling for increased training on eating disorders for junior doctors specialising in general practice, as well as sufficient training in medical schools and appropriate examination. We're also launching new literature, including "First Steps" guidance to empower people with eating disorders to get the most out of their GP appointment and to answer any questions the GP may have and refer them to relevant medical guidelines.
Throughout the week, we'll be pressing for early intervention in a variety of ways, including through a public awareness campaign, a parliamentary event, and a petition calling for the necessary steps to be taken to ensure that all GPs are able to refer eating disorder sufferers to treatment without delay. Eating disorders are complex, widely misunderstood mental illnesses that can take over a sufferer's life and the lives of those around them, but with the right support, provided as early as possible, we know people can fully recover.
If you're worried you might have an eating disorder or concerned about someone you know, visit www.b-eat.co.uk, or call the Beat helpline on 0808 801 0677.